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The Translation of Films, 1900-1950$

Carol O'Sullivan and Jean-François Cornu

Print publication date: 2019

Print ISBN-13: 9780197266434

Published to British Academy Scholarship Online: September 2019

DOI: 10.5871/bacad/9780197266434.001.0001

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The significance of dubbed versions for early sound-film history

The significance of dubbed versions for early sound-film history

(p.191) 11 The significance of dubbed versions for early sound-film history
The Translation of Films, 1900-1950

Jean-François Cornu

British Academy

Abstract and Keywords

Dubbing as a film translation technique has been largely taken for granted since its origins. Yet such origins are rarely looked into from historical, technical, and artistic perspectives. The study of early French-dubbed Hollywood and European films has a lot to teach us. This chapter examines aspects of voice-acting, lip synchronisation, dialogue alteration, and sound mixing in nine American, German, and British films. It reveals how the makers of French dubbed versions, in Hollywood and in France, were keen on recreating the soundtrack of foreign films according to their own perception of sound and voice treatment, sometimes disregarding the source material to the point of ‘enriching’ it. This approach has major implications for the reception of these versions, but also for the study of the evolution of sound practices in the early sound period. The historical merits of these versions also have significant archival and exhibition implications.

Keywords:   archival issues, British cinema, film translation, French dubbing, German cinema, Hollywood, lip synchronisation, sound mixing, audiovisual translation history

THE PRACTICE OF DUBBING HAS traditionally been blamed for being anti-artistic on the grounds that it takes an artistic creation from the hands of its makers and adapts it for commercial purposes with damaging consequences.1 Although this is not always untrue, there is much more to it; dubbing contributed to the diffusion of talking cinema through all social classes in a significant number of countries. Whether one likes it or not, dubbing is a major film translation technique which can also help us better understand the development and standardisation of film-sound processes and practices.

During the conversion to sound in France from 1929, the foreign films available to filmgoers were mostly American and, to a lesser extent, German. The development of dubbing for the French market was led by a small number of Hollywood studios: Paramount, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM), and Fox. Between 1929 and 1931, studios experimented simultaneously with subtitling, dubbing, and multiple-language versions (versions of the same film shot in different languages). Other American productions and films from other countries released through local independent distributors went through similar experiments.2 The photographic superimposition of titles in the lower part of the image, which became known as subtitling, was used as early as 1929 to translate American films into French. Such subtitles could be hard to read because of occasionally poor definition. In addition, subtitled versions were not widely distributed because of a high demand for talking films in French, prompted by a rejection of English. A 1932 government decree drastically restricted the exhibition of subtitled versions.3

(p.192) As France was a major territory for the American and German film industries, it was important that talking films featuring well-known stars continued to be released there so that the USA and Germany could maintain their presence in a highly profitable market. Dubbing eventually superseded multiple-language versions because this film translation technique made it possible to keep the image mostly unchanged: the physical performance and appeal of the original actors could be maintained and enjoyed throughout the world. As a consequence, most dubbing studios did their best to obtain high quality in the dialogue, trying to match the voice-acting and overall sound of the dubbed versions with those of the original films.4

The technique of dubbing as it is used for language transfer has wide implications for the making and reception of a dubbed version. The aim is to recreate the original soundtrack while inserting new voices. In the early years, different methods and equipment were used to achieve this, which was not always easy depending on the material provided by production companies. From 1926, two synchronised sound systems for commercial application were used, especially in the USA: sound-on-disc, a method which coupled records carrying the soundtrack with the film image; and sound-on-film, whereby the soundtrack was photographically reproduced on the film strip, securing complete synchronism between sound and image. Because of frequent failures in synchronism, sound-on-disc was quickly abandoned. To my knowledge, no sound-on-disc films were dubbed into French.

In late 1930, some Hollywood studios were already able to record music and sound effects on one track and voices on another, in anticipation of the making of dubbed versions.5 However, not all European dubbing studios were yet equipped to mix different soundtracks, as some of the films studied here show. Consequently, the quality of dubbed soundtracks could vary a lot: some contained only the sound and words of the new voices, without any other sound effects; others would alternate non-speaking sections of the original soundtrack with new sections carrying the new dialogue, without any attempt to reproduce the original room tone; yet others would aim at recreating a ‘realistic’ sound atmosphere, trying to achieve the best possible balance between the dubbed voices and the original sound effects and music.

The study of speech and sound in early dubbed versions has historical, archival, and exhibition implications. Understanding how dubbed versions, into French or any other language, were made in the transition to sound sheds light on an under-researched area of film-making and contributes to the (p.193) history of film-sound. It also contributes to the accurate identification of versions, which may provide useful information for cataloguing by film archivists and for public exhibition.

Scrutiny of a relevant sample of dubbed versions of American and European films released in France in the early talking period makes it possible to evaluate how significant the use of speech and sound in these versions may be for the history of the transition to sound. My understanding of sound in dubbed versions includes everything that can be heard on the soundtrack: voices (dialogue and non-verbal sounds), sound effects, music. However, my emphasis here is on speech and dialogue-related sound effects. I studied the soundtracks, and their relationship with the image, of nine American, British, and German films in their French-dubbed versions. The production of these films in their countries of origin and their release in France covers the period from early 1931, when dubbing was first commercially used in France, to 1936, by which time it had become a routine stage of commercial distribution, and technical procedures had become standardised.6

All the films in this study were successful in their country of origin and therefore had commercial appeal abroad. They are A Free Soul (Clarence Brown, 1931), Mata Hari (George Fitzmaurice, 1931), Grand Hotel (Edmund Goulding, 1932), Queen Christina (Rouben Mamoulian, 1934), all MGM productions; The Lost Squadron (George Archainbaud, 1931) and The Lost Patrol (John Ford, 1934), both from RKO; the German Der brave Sünder (Fritz Kortner, 1931), and two British films, The Private Life of Henry VIII (Alexander Korda, 1933) and Waltzes from Vienna (Alfred Hitchcock, 1934).7 For details of the material viewed, their chronologies, and sources, see Table 11.1 at the end of this chapter.

These films are useful for studying the evolution of dubbing practices and their impact on film sound over the crucial transitional period for a number of reasons. MGM gave particular care to the making of its French-dubbed versions, which it had full control over. By contrast, RKO contracted its pictures out to local distributors and dubbing studios. The German production included here is one of the first films dubbed in France with a specially designed method which I describe later. As to the British films, both were ‘prestigious’ productions deemed worthy of dubbing for distribution in France. The choice of these films was first based on information available in (p.194) non-film material (trade papers) which emphasised various aspects of their production and reception. It also relied on the fact that they were major American and European star vehicles, and that the dubbed versions were made by pioneers of French dubbing in the USA and France. The choice was also determined by the availability of copies for viewing, in film archives and/ or as DVD editions. Although this is only a sample of films, however significant these may be, it might serve as a model for a more extensive study of the contribution of dubbing to early film-sound, not only in France but in other dubbing countries as well.

Various approaches to the study of dubbed versions are possible. They can be looked at diachronically to analyse the evolution of sound practices in dubbing studios over time, and compared with the evolution of sound in the original productions. The versions can be classified and analysed according to which dubbing process was used. We can focus on the original production company, the local distributor’s policy, or the particular stars featured in the films.

To a certain extent, I used all of these approaches, but primarily chose to concentrate on carefully listening to the original and dubbed soundtracks, while never losing sight (literally!) of the intricate relationship between sound and image. Here I focus on what voices sound like, the issue of lip synchronisation, significant changes in the dialogue, and the treatment of dialogue-related sound effects.

Voices and speech in French-dubbed versions of the early 1930s

In the great majority of the dubbed versions I chose to study, the performances of the dubbing actors are characterised by ‘naturalness’. This may appear a subjective, and somewhat elusive, quality. Yet this term (naturel in French) was often used by trade papers and popular film magazines to highlight that dubbed dialogue did not sound artificial or affected both in content and delivery.

The French version of Queen Christina is a telling example. In an early scene Christina, queen of Sweden (Greta Garbo), and French ambassador Chanut (Georges Renavent) have a witty conversation (see Figure 11.1). Lasting hardly longer than a minute, the scene consists of nine shots, mostly in the shot/reverse shot pattern, where the actors’ mouths are visible in medium shots and medium close-ups most of the time. Both characters vie to be cleverer than the other, with Christina finally outsmarting her guest. The content and delivery of the French dialogue are neat and very close to the original and often match lip movements, as this excerpt from the first two shots shows:


The significance of dubbed versions for early sound-film historyThe significance of dubbed versions for early sound-film history

Figure 11.1. Christina of Sweden (Greta Garbo) in conversation with French ambassador Chanut (Georges Renavent) in Queen Christina (Rouben Mamoulian, 1934).

(p.196) Queen Christina:

  • I have good news for you, Monsieur Chanut. Your countryman, the philosopher Descartes, is coming here.
  • J’ai de bonnes nouvelles pour vous, Monsieur Chanut. Votre compatriote, le philosophe Descartes, va venir ici.
  • Chanut:

  • What happier destiny for a Frenchman than to come to you, Madame!
  • Quel plus heureux destin pour un Français que de venir vous voir, Madame !
  • Queen Christina:

  • You are the only ambassador, Monsieur Chanut, who doesn’t treat me like an institution. I must confess it’s very agreeable.
  • Vous êtes le seul ambassadeur, Monsieur Chanut, qui ne me traite pas comme une institution. J’avoue que cela m’est très, très agréable.
  • Chanut:

  • That is charming of you, Madame. But the arrival of the Spanish ambassador makes it especially urgent that you sign the treaty with France. Now [with a grin].
  • C’est charmant à vous, Madame. Mais l’arrivée de l’ambassadeur d’Espagne rend tout à fait urgente la signature du traité avec la France. Maintenant.
  • The English dialogue, containing a number of words with Greek and Latin roots which resemble their French cognates, as well as actual French words, certainly made the writing of the dubbed lines easier, to the extent that no back-translation into English is needed here to give a flavour of the dubbed dialogue. In addition, both vocal performances in this scene are very close to those of the original actors. Garbo is dubbed by Claude Marcy, who had lent her voice to Garbo in Mata Hari and Grand Hotel. The ambassador’s flowery and flirtatious lines are delivered by an unidentified actor (Renavent did not dub himself).

    In the spy film Mata Hari, Marcy’s voice sometimes recalls that of Arletty, the French star of the 1930s. Although Mata Hari is supposed to be a foreign spy, Marcy never puts on any kind of accent, whereas Garbo’s own voice occasionally betrays her Swedish accent. It is only when she pronounces surnames that Marcy hints at foreignness, stressing syllables in a way that is unnatural to French and making an initial ‘H’ heard, as in her own name Mata Hari, when the French usually say Mata Ari.

    The French version of Grand Hotel — which I return to below, in relation to lip synchronisation — and the later dubbed versions of The Lost Squadron and The Lost Patrol show comparable verisimilitude in dialogue and performance. In these films, emphasis was put much more on plausible lines and ‘realistic’ voice acting than on strict lip synchronisation. In Quatre de l’aviation (Four from the Air Force), the dubbed version of The Lost Squadron, a group of American aviators who fought in the First World War become stunt pilots in fiction films. Co-written by Yvan Noé, a former dialogue writer for multiple-language films in Hollywood, the French lines are convincing (p.197) and delivered in a realistic way by some of the pioneers of French dubbing, such as René Montis (here lending his voice to Richard Dix, a star of the period). In The Lost Patrol, a squad of British soldiers are fighting elusive Arab snipers in the Mesopotamian desert during the First World War. The original soundtrack has few sound effects apart from gunshots and other occasional noises, but quite a lot of post-synchronised dialogue, often accompanied by background music. The dialogue of the French-dubbed version, faithfully entitled La Patrouille perdue, conveys attitudes and characters similar to those of the original film. In particular, Victor McLaglen, the star of the all-male cast, has a deep French voice not unlike his own. For example, in a scene in which he suggests the men draw lots to choose which one of them will try and find help, his words are very similar to the original, although his tone may sound as if he was their friend rather than their leader, in slight contrast with the original soundtrack. However, this does not drastically alter the gloomy mood of the original scene.

    A Free Soul provides another example of the care put into the accuracy of the dubbed dialogue. Jan Ashe (Norma Shearer) and her father Stephen, a lawyer (Lionel Barrymore), have an unusually intimate relationship. When Stephen discovers his daughter is having an affair with a notorious gangster who is also one of his clients, he feels betrayed by Jan and they have an argument about it. This is quite a long scene with a number of medium close-ups. In the dubbed version, lip-synching is often approximate, but the dialogue is convincing and the coherence between body and voice comes from a synchronicity between what is being said and the general expression of the face and the eyes. Lionel Barrymore speaks French through René Fleur’s voice, but it is uncertain which French dubbing actress lent her voice to Norma Shearer. Margaret Romaine (a.k.a. Marguerite Romane) was reported at the time to have dubbed the American star,8 but Madeleine Larsay later claimed she, rather than Romaine, was Shearer’s voice.9 The delivery of convincing lines in a tone one would expect in a similar real-life situation is what reviewers called ‘naturalness’ at the time.

    I mention the names of dubbing actors above for the sake of identifying them as pioneers of French dubbing, because they rarely appear in studies on the subject. However, this does not mean that they were well-known among French filmgoers, especially in the early years. With time some of them would become closely linked with the actor(s) they dubbed and, although not always known by name, their voice would be instantly recognised as this or that (p.198) famous foreign, usually American, actor. But this was not yet the case in the first half of the 1930s.

    Sounding ‘natural’ was not always incompatible with a degree of theatricality, especially when the performance of the actors called for it. Here ‘theatricality’ should be understood as a mixture of artificiality, over-acting, and conventional stage-acting. As an example, most of the French version of A Free Soul mixes ‘naturalness’ with a theatricality which reflects that displayed physically on screen by Lionel Barrymore, especially in the final courtroom scene where a frail Stephen Ashe makes his last speech for the defence before collapsing. Dubbing him in French, René Fleur achieved the same theatrical climax as the screen actor through his voice alone. Fleur was just as faithful to Barrymore’s very different performances in the later Mata Hari and Grand Hotel. Theatricality in voice-acting can also be found in the French versions of The Private Life of Henry VIII and Waltzes from Vienna. The dubbed performances in these British films are particularly reminiscent of stage acting, perhaps also because they are period films.

    As regards vocal naturalness, the only exception in my corpus is the French version of the German film Der brave Sünder, which goes by two French titles: L’Affaire Pichler (The Pichler Case) or Pichler banquier (Bank Clerk Pichler).10 Here I refer to the French-dubbed version with the first title as it appears on the print I viewed. In this popular German film with comedian Max Pallenberg, bank clerk Pichler (Pallenberg) and his assistant (Heinz Rühmann) encounter various adventures as they search for their vacationing director to deliver him a briefcase of money. They lose the briefcase in the process, but discover that, in the meantime, their boss has embezzled a much larger amount from the bank. Eventually, the humble Pichler becomes temporary manager of the bank.

    In this dubbed version, all the voices seem to be on the same sound plane: there is no spatialisation, the sound space seems flattened. The voices are quite loud, and lack the soft-to-loud spectrum that can be found in the dubbed versions of the American and British films I studied. The physical distance that separates the screen actors, as well as their position in relation to the camera, are not conveyed by the way the French voices were recorded. This is particularly striking when the original sound can be briefly heard in pauses between lines of dialogue. ‘Naturalness’, elusive notion as it may be, is certainly lacking in this early French dubbing. However, achieving ‘realistic’ and ‘natural’ dialogue and voice performances greatly depended on the dubbing method involved. This is where lip synchronisation comes into play.

    (p.199) Lip synchronisation

    As early as 1931, some developers of dubbing methods thought absolute lip synchronisation would be the best way to create the illusion that screen actors could speak the audience’s language.11 In other cases, good dialogue that could be easily performed by dubbing actors was preferred to strict adherence to lip-synching.12

    A middle way was achieved in the French-dubbed version of Grand Hotel. In this adaptation of Vicky Baum’s famous novel of the same title, various characters meet in a Berlin palace hotel. In the French version, accurate lip-synching is used only for words that are exactly similar in both English and French, mostly proper names. This is obvious in the introduction scene with frontal medium close-ups of people talking in phone booths, in particular industrialist Preysing (Wallace Beery, French voice unidentified). In a later scene, the old and ailing Kringelein (Lionel Barrymore, dubbed by René Fleur) asks several times for a ‘Louisiana Flip’ cocktail at the hotel bar: only the unchanged name of the cocktail perfectly matches Barrymore’s lip movements.

    The general impression in the case of the American and British films is that the makers of the dubbed versions did not generally let lip-synching get in the way of convincing dialogue. This is evident in the French version of The Private Life of Henry VIII. At the beginning of the film, during a meeting with his government, Henry (Charles Laughton) orders Thomas Culpeper (Robert Donat) to inform him about the new queen, Jane Seymour. Culpeper misunderstands him and mentions the imminent execution of Henry’s former wife, Anne Boleyn, to which the king furiously exclaims, ‘Ass! I did not mean …’, leaving his interjection unfinished.

    The equivalent in the French version is: Idiot! Je ne parle pas de… (You idiot! I am not talking about…). Georges Dorival, Laughton’s voice in French, stretches out the syllables to match the English actor’s enunciation, but lip synchronisation is not actually achieved. It is clear that preference was given to the performance rather than to the illusion that King Henry spoke French. This was probably deliberate: French theatre actor Dorival was perceived as the attraction of the film as Laughton’s French voice. In two consecutive issues, the weekly trade paper La Cinématographie française acclaimed this dubbed version upon its release in Paris, saying that ‘One almost has the (p.200) impression … that one watches and listens to an original film and not a dubbed film’ and praising ‘Dorival’s excellent dubbing’.13 A week later, the magazine had more praise: ‘We must especially congratulate Mr Dorival of the Comédie-Française who took on the delicate and troublesome task of dubbing Charles Laughton.’14 In the end credits of this version, his name appears at the top of the list of dubbing actors, in larger type than his colleagues. Dorival used his craft as the stage actor he was, taking advantage of the prestige of belonging to the Comédie-Française classical theatre company, duly highlighted in the credits. His voice performance is indeed very theatrical and mostly unconcerned with lip-synching. In comparison, the other voice actors sound far less theatrical (with the exception of Elsa Lanchester’s deliberately grotesque performance as Anne of Cleves, convincingly mimicked in French). Dorival’s thundering vocal performance is likely to have appealed to the 1934 French audience, as it was not unusual in early 1930s French films. Examples can be found in Raimu’s exuberant performances in the screen adaptations of Marcel Pagnol’s Marseille stage trilogy, especially in the second film, Fanny (Alexander Korda, 1932).

    When dubbing studios did focus on lip-synch, they did not necessarily produce less conspicuous vocal performances. In L’Affaire Pichler lip-synching is often better achieved than in the films mentioned above, but this comes at a price. This is evident in the first scene at Pichler’s office, in which Max Pallenberg speaks slowly, slightly overstressing syllables for comic effect. Although his performance called for a degree of exaggeration, the delivery of Pierre Darteuil, who dubs him in French, is somewhat halting, with artificially elongated syllables. This is all the more noticeable as Pallenberg appears practically in every scene. Yet not all actors in this version sound as mechanical as Darteuil. Jean Rosenberg,15 dubbing Ekkehard Arendt as the crooked bank manager, sounds far less affected, and closer to voices heard in French-dubbed American films. In this regard, the imbalance between the over-acting by (p.201) the performers dubbing the male stars and the ‘natural’-sounding supporting cast in both L’Affaire Pichler and the French version of Henry VIII is striking.

    Lip-synching seems more accurate in L’Affaire Pichler than in the other dubbed versions because it was achieved through a process sometimes called in English ‘mechanical guide method’:16 a running strip carrying the dialogue to be recorded was projected below the main screen; the dubbing actors spoke their lines at the exact moment each word went past a vertical line, which guaranteed lip-synching. But as the words had to fit the shape of the mouth movements, they sometimes sounded quite unnatural in the dubbed language. Two such systems were developed for dubbing in the early 1930s: the German ‘Rhythmograph’, and the French ‘Ciné-Pupitre’ used for L’Affaire Pichler.17

    By contrast, the American and British films were dubbed with a ‘visual synchronisation’ method whereby the dubbing actors learned their lines by heart before recording, and used the silent image of the screen actors as their only guide to achieve some sort of synchronism with the mouth movements. This helps to explain why synchronisation is less accurate, but the dialogue richer and more ‘natural’.18

    Because lip-synching was seen as the major stumbling block in dubbing, ways of bypassing the problem were envisioned right from the production stage. In 1930 and 1931, trade papers on both sides of the Atlantic announced that some American studios planned to avoid close-ups, favouring reverse shots on listeners when a character spoke in a conversation, and making lip movements as unobtrusive as possible in medium and long shots.19 Although this was reportedly the case at MGM,20 I have found no instance of such tricks in any of the American films I studied, including in the four MGM productions, all made between 1931 and 1933. For example, A Free Soul, a star-filled film with high potential box-office return abroad, was shot in March (p.202) and April 1931, when one would expect such production methods to have been implemented.21 Hidden mouths can indeed be found in a shot/reverse shot conversation in a prison scene at the end of the film. However, this seems much more guided by specific mise-en-scène choices than by anticipating foreign dubbing, as this film contains numerous other scenes where two or more people have lengthy conversations, with faces and mouths clearly visible in medium shots and close-ups.

    Other 1931 MGM productions rarely show such directing tricks either. Shot early that year, George Hill’s The Secret Six contains numerous medium close-ups of talking characters. Produced in the middle of 1931, Robert Z. Leonard’s Susan Lenox, Her Fall and Rise does have recurring long shots seemingly avoiding mouths, but its last 30 minutes abound with frontal medium close-ups of Greta Garbo’s and Clark Gable’s speaking faces. The box-office appeal of these stars could not be squandered for the sake of anticipating dubbing constraints.

    Productions from other studios provide instances of avoiding shots with visible mouth movements, but this was not systematically applied during the critical 1930–1 period. For example, George Cukor’s The Royal Family of Broadway, shot at Paramount studios in late 1930, is an overtly theatrical film about a family of theatre actors. It mostly includes medium close-ups in which speaking characters are clearly visible, facing the audience as if on stage. Archie Mayo’s The Doorway to Hell, Mervyn LeRoy’s Little Caesar, and William Wellman’s Safe in Hell, all Warner Bros/First National productions respectively shot in summer 1930, late 1930, and autumn 1931, have a very large number of medium shots and close-ups with visible speaking characters. In Fox’s Delicious, directed by David Butler in the second half of 1931, every single shot where characters speak clearly shows their mouths.22 In shot/ reverse-shot conversations, only the speaker is shown. In a period where strategies for marketing films abroad were not always consistent and could change overnight, avoiding visible lip movement at the production stage was certainly envisaged, but it may not have been applied on such a large scale as one would expect from reading the trade reports.23

    (p.203) Alterations in the dialogue and dialogue-related sound effects

    Adapting the original dialogue of a film to another language necessarily involves changes related to the syntactic and semantic differences between languages. Of course, such linguistic adaptation is not specific to cinema. However, lip-synching is a film-specific constraint which often imposes major changes in the dubbed dialogue. Other alterations not linked to lip-synching, but related to dialogue, are also made, for reasons which can sometimes be more difficult to pin down. Such changes have implications for the perception of the plot and the relationships between characters.

    Altered dialogue

    Alterations in the films under study include the addition of new words in French within silent ‘gaps’ in the original soundtrack, and even the replacement of whole sections of dialogue. In Grand Hotel, for example, ballet dancer Grusinskaya (Greta Garbo) and a hotel thief calling himself ‘The Baron’ (John Barrymore) share clandestine kisses and hugs in the dancer’s suite. Suzette, her personal maid (Rafaela Ottiano), knocks on the door outside the room, off screen. In the original film, one hears Grusinskaya whisper ‘Suzette’ twice, with a short pause in between. Although she whispers into the Baron’s ear, she does not seem to be directly talking to him (see Figure 11.2). In the dubbed version, the dancer’s French voice utters two short sentences: C’est Suzette… Mon chéri. (It’s Suzette… My darling.) Claude Marcy’s voice is louder than Garbo’s. No technical constraint imposed this new line nor the difference in tone — certainly not lip-synching: Suzette is a French name and no other word is said in English. The second time Grusinskaya says ‘Suzette’, she has just kissed the Baron again, and smiles before opening her mouth to say her maid’s name. When the film is viewed in English with the sound off, one gets the impression that Garbo starts speaking after the kiss as if her line began with an ‘m’ sound. This may be the reason why the makers of the dubbed version felt they had to add words beginning with a matching lip movement — hence the conspicuous Mon chéri in lieu of ‘Suzette’.

    Although the French version makes sense in itself, it triggers quite a different reading of this conclusion of a powerfully erotic embrace (this was before Hollywood’s constraining Production Code). The way the dancer repeats her maid’s name, as she shares a moment of physical bliss with the thief, emphasises that she rejoices in the illicit nature of their embrace. In the French version, she says Suzette’s name only once, as if startled by the knocking on the door. Her utterance becomes a merely conventional line, as it can (p.204)

    The significance of dubbed versions for early sound-film history

    Figure 11.2. Dancer Grusinskaya (Greta Garbo) whispers to the Baron (John Barrymore) in Grand Hotel (Edmund Goulding, 1932).

    be understood as both a banal endearment and a warning that they should stop their embrace.

    Another MGM film with Greta Garbo provides an even more striking example of manipulation of sound and meaning. At the beginning of Queen Christina, the Swedish queen tells her aide-de-camp Aage (C. Aubrey Smith) how much she appreciates the free spirit in Molière’s plays, and quotes a line from Les Précieuses ridicules (The Pretentious Young Ladies, act I, scene 4): ‘As for me, Uncle, all I can say is that I think marriage an altogether shocking thing. How is it possible to endure the idea of sleeping with a man in the room?’ The quotation stops short of being faithful to the original play, which actually says ‘with a naked man’.

    In the French version, the queen tells Aage how much she enjoys reading not Molière, but Montaigne, and quotes from a chapter on friendship from the French philosopher’s Essays: ‘Common friendships will admit of division; … but this friendship that possesses the whole soul, and there rules and sways with an absolute sovereignty, cannot possibly admit of a rival.’24

    (p.205) This substitution cannot be explained by a need for lip synchronisation. Careful viewing of the scene shows that no such attempt was made: not even the rhythm of enunciation and breathing is matched; the pause between the two clauses is erased by a continuous sentence in French. Even if lip-synching had been a requisite, Molière’s name did not need to be replaced with Montaigne’s. Considering that this film was dubbed with a ‘visual synchronisation’ method, no technical constraint imposed this change in meaning, which has major implications for the understanding of the scene. In the original version, Queen Christina’s quotation of Molière is a personal statement about the way she intends to keep control of her life. The French version turns this bold self-assertion into a conventional and convoluted prescription on exclusive friendship, presumably of the male kind, which is all the more out of character here. Only censorship, official or self-imposed, would explain such a drastic shift of discourse on marriage, which is so critical to this film’s plot.

    Earlier in the same film, the queen listens to members of her parliament on the question of going to war. After hearing the noblemen and the clergy, she wants to know what the peasants’ opinion is, and asks one of them to speak up. The man answers, in a clearly educated manner: ‘What is there for us to say, Your Majesty? Unbeknownst to us, the war is started, and we are sent and we go.’ In the French version, however, the man expresses himself in a lower register, with rolled ‘r’s and informal diction.

    These examples from Grand Hotel and Queen Christina suggest that the makers of the dubbed versions appear to have recreated the spoken dialogue so that it fitted their own approach of what ought to sound ‘natural’, ‘realistic’, and acceptable. In doing so, they paradoxically maintained theatrical, and even moral, conventions.

    Dialogue-related sound alterations

    When dialogue is not changed outright, sounds accompanying talking scenes may also be altered, with striking implications for the reception. In most of the films I studied, a number of original sounds associated with dialogue do not make it as far as the dubbed versions. Chuckles and deliberate hesitations occasionally disappear from Queen Christina’s original soundtrack. In the original British version of Henry VIII, as the king is about to reluctantly join Anne of Cleves, his fourth wife, in the nuptial bedroom, he declares, ‘The (p.206) things I’ve done for England’, after which Charles Laughton sighs meaningfully. Dorival’s statement in the dubbed version is faithful to the original, but no sigh is heard after his line. The abrupt silence makes the line much less humorous.

    The suppression of sounds directly related to dialogue makes dubbed soundtracks cruder and more abrupt. However, instances of added sounds seem to be much more frequent than deletions.

    The French version of Mata Hari presents an interesting case. After giving a show, Mata Hari (Garbo) drinks with a number of men in her suite. Tired, she asks them all to leave. In the original film, this part of the scene ends with Mata Hari saying ‘good night’ once with a smile, while closing a double door on the right, as the last man silently bows and leaves (see Figure 11.3).

    In the dubbed version, the image is identical but, just as Mata Hari is about to close the door, she says ‘good night’ a second time and a male voice can be heard replying, Mes hommages, madame (My humble respects, Madam). This extra line is understood to come from the outgoing guest. In

    The significance of dubbed versions for early sound-film history

    Figure 11.3. Spy Mata Hari (Greta Garbo) dismisses her last guest in Mata Hari (George Fitzmaurice, 1931).

    (p.207) the original film, Garbo smiles throughout, until she closes her mouth as she shuts the door. The man elegantly smiles without uttering a sound. The presence of words in the French soundtrack meets what seem to be conventional requirements of the stage, and expected etiquette. However, the Parisian setting of Mata Hari is hardly sufficient to account for a line that does not exist in the original soundtrack. As in the kissing scene in Grand Hotel, this addition seems to stem from a need to fill mouths with dialogue when there is only a slight visual suggestion of speech.

    Produced one after the other in late 1931 and early 1932, Mata Hari and Grand Hotel were among the last films to be dubbed into French at the MGM Culver City studios in the spring and summer of 1932. Could these instances of added dialogue be a trademark practice of MGM? They seem to represent a compulsive habit of adding lines, perhaps because of the novelty of sound, for the sake of convention, or, even, out of a fear of silence. Although silence paradoxically became an interesting feature of talking films, it appears the novelty of sound and speech was maximised in early French-dubbed soundtracks.

    Changes in the sounds accompanying dialogue have consequences for the perception of what characters say to each other. In Queen Christina, after spending an unexpected night together in an inn, the Swedish sovereign (Garbo) and the Spanish ambassador (John Gilbert), who does not yet know the identity of the woman he has fallen in love with, say goodbye to each other and promise to meet again. Seen in profile, they stand facing each other in what is mostly a medium shot. In the original film, the only sounds in this 40-second scene are the words Christina and Antonio exchange. No music can be heard. The effect is that of a heart-breaking parting. The absence of music contrasts with the previous scene during which the queen walks around the bedroom they shared to impress it on her memory, while nostalgic extra-diegetic music can be heard.

    The parting scene in the dubbed version has the same duration and the dialogue is very faithful to the original. However, over the first half of the scene, a few bars of the nostalgic melody of the previous scene are softly played again. The adding of the music introduces a superfluous and conventional touch of nostalgia. It seems that the makers of the French dubbing were unwilling to accept complete background silence in a spoken scene.

    Two consecutive scenes from A Free Soul provide perhaps the most striking and significant examples of such alterations. Jan and her father Stephen are camping in the woods after agreeing to stay away from their respective addictions — Ace, the gangster Jan is in love with, and alcohol, Stephen’s weakness. In the first scene, made up of two shots, they have a conversation, at the end of which Stephen gives his daughter a letter that she puts in her pocket without reading. The dialogue implies the letter is from (p.208) Ace. In the second shot, Jan goes to sit by a stream and sadly tears up the sealed envelope without reading the letter. The only sounds are the dialogue of the conversation during the first shot, accompanied by a humming sound (perhaps the result of direct-sound recording), and faint watery sound effects in the second shot.

    In the French version, the scene has the same duration; the image and the dialogue are unchanged. But the sound is conspicuously different. During Jan and Stephen’s conversation, a chirping bird can be heard. This new sound effect introduces a shift in narrative terms, as the viewer is induced to think that the bird sings a love song and associate it with the letter. Even if it was not intentional, the scene now sounds conventionally sentimental whereas the original is subtly tragic.

    In the next scene, Jan and Stephen are sleeping out in the open. For a couple of seconds one can hear the faint sound of bullfrogs, before Stephen starts speaking. He mentions them as painful reminders of his self-imposed temperance, as if they were saying ‘No rum, no rum’. As soon as the dialogue starts, the sound of the bullfrogs disappears. This makes Stephen’s line to Jan, ‘Hear those bullfrogs? Hear what they’re saying’, a little awkward, as one cannot hear the frogs at that very moment.

    Croaking frogs are also heard on the French soundtrack, but throughout the scene, mixed with the French dialogue. Now Stephen’s question makes more sense. Interestingly, ‘No rum’ becomes Cognac, cognac — both an adaptation of the original rum into a very French spirit, and a clever use of a word which sounds like frogs croaking. The disregard for lip-synching in the choice of this word highlights the preference for plausible dialogue over strict synchronisation.

    While the singing bird markedly modifies the perception of the first scene’s mood, the continuous sound of frogs in the second scene ‘enhances’ an impression only suggested in the original sound recording. In this respect, it can be considered an improvement, compared with the interruption of the croaking of the bullfrogs on the original soundtrack. The direct-sound recording of the English dialogue would have required background silence, which was not possible because the sound-recording equipment was not yet ‘noiseless’. This may have sounded ‘unnatural’ to the French makers of the dubbing, even more so as these scenes are supposed to take place in the wild.

    As these examples show, far from being restricted to linguistic and vocal adaptation, dubbing was used at a very early stage as a way of ‘repairing’ what were perceived as shortcomings in the original sound. When the French dubbers felt something was missing, they took it upon themselves to fill in the soundtrack, and aimed at ‘enhancing’ it with what they thought ought to be heard. Were they motivated by a taste for theatrical conventions, or for the (p.209) kind of naturalism that could be found in contemporary French films?25 Charles O’Brien has shown how different sound treatment was in American and French film production during the conversion-to-sound period:26 French filmmakers favoured direct-sound recording with multiple microphones which enhanced actors’ performances with lengthy sound and visual takes. Could this ‘enhancing’ practice have influenced recording practices in dubbing, in spite of its more fragmented process, entailing an odd mixture of theatricality and naturalism? Or was it linked to the long tradition of the ‘belles infidèles’, beautifying translations of literary works into French, inaugurated in the 17th century?27 What is certain is that this practice of ‘enhancement’ has remained very common in French dubbing studios to this day.

    Along with changes in the dialogue and dialogue-related sounds, early French-dubbed versions show changes in sound effects in scenes without dialogue, sometimes to the point of recreating sounds either similar to or different from the original soundtrack. For reasons of space this study focuses on dialogue and dialogue-related sounds, but further research on other sounds in dubbed versions would be enlightening on the approach to post-synchronised sound in early 1930s French recording studios.

    Sound mixing in French dubbings

    The addition of a singing bird and croaking frogs to the French soundtrack of A Free Soul would tend to indicate that MGM produced no separate sound-effect track for these scenes. Yet, as early as 1930, Paramount thought of recording the music and sound effects on one optical track, and the English dialogue on another track, to facilitate the making of foreign versions and maintain the original sound atmosphere as much as possible.28 This practice became widely feasible in Hollywood films with the introduction of the Moviola sound editing table in 1931. This track would become known as a ‘music and effects track’ or ‘M & E track’.

    Such equipment was not as readily available in France, although French manufacturers soon made their own sound-processing equipment. The CTM (p.210) company, for example, marketed the Moritone sound-editing table from 1933, as well as a sound-reading table specifically designed for dubbing. At the same time, CTM manufactured another piece of equipment, advertising it as a ‘mobile sound reader’ with which it was possible to ‘quickly listen to four sounds and compare them with each other’ (see Figure 11.4).29 But the actual sound mixing could be done with only two tracks, and this was standard until the mid-1940s as Charles O’Brien observes.30

    From the sound-mixing perspective, the nine films in this study fall into two broad categories: (1) films for which two-track editing was used, and (2) versions whose soundtracks result from the back-to-back assembly of dubbed voices and fragments of the original sound. The first category includes all the MGM productions, which are likely to have benefited from multi-track mixing in their original versions. The new technology may have been used in their French-dubbed versions, especially those made in Hollywood in 1932 (A Free Soul, Mata Hari, and Grand Hotel), although to a limited extent. In the dubbed version of A Free Soul some sections show that mixing several sounds with voices proved too difficult; in others, two tracks were perhaps specially created and mixed. Mata Hari’s dubbed version seems to involve simple two-track mixing when only music and voices are heard (as in the gambling scene at the beginning). Other scenes clearly have recreated sounds, sometimes added to avoid silence, as in a scene in the office of chief spy Andriani (Lewis Stone), where a series of opening and closing doors is heard in a greater number in the dubbed version than in the original film. The sound mixing in the French version of Grand Hotel is quite smooth and involves at least two tracks, with recreated or modified sound effects, such as sighs, sobs, and screams. This is especially true in the tragic scene at the end where businessman Preysing kills the hotel thief.

    The first category also comprises MGM’s Queen Christina and RKO’s The Lost Patrol, produced in Hollywood, but whose dubbed versions were made in French studios between late 1931 and 1935. Although multi-track mixing is likely to have been used in production, the sound mixing in Queen Christina — most probably dubbed with two-track editing — seems quite basic, in particular when voices are involved. A telling example is the opening speech delivered by the Chancellor (Lewis Stone) at the parliament following the king’s death, as he is about to introduce the child queen. His voice grows fainter as the camera slowly tracks back, which provides a fascinating situation in an early talking film, where the point of view and the ‘point of audition’ (p.211) (p.212)

    The significance of dubbed versions for early sound-film history

    Figure 11.4. Advertisement for the CTM sound-reading table applied to dubbing, published in La Cinématographie française, 771 (12 August 1933), 22.

    are perfectly matched.31 However, in the French version, there is no room tone and the Chancellor’s voice remains on the same sound plane throughout the scene. This is disturbing in a film by Rouben Mamoulian, a director known for his innovation and care in direct-sound recording.

    The dubbed version of The Lost Patrol also belongs to the first group. One of the late dubbings in this study, its soundtrack demonstrates that two-track editing available in French studios made it easy to mix dubbed voices with an existing M & E track. The original soundtrack of this film mainly has speech and music, with limited sound effects. There is little difference in the sound atmosphere of the dubbed version.32 Only occasional echoing and distance effects are lost or patchily recreated. This version would suggest how practices had become standardised in French dubbing studios by 1935.

    The second category, in which two-track mixing was not used, includes Quatre de l’aviation, the French version of RKO’s The Lost Squadron, as well as the German and British films: Der brave Sünder, The Private Life of Henry VIII, and Waltzes from Vienna. Although it benefits from convincing and ‘natural’ voice-acting, the sound mixing of Quatre de l’aviation seems a little crude. The fact that it was one of the earliest dubbings made in a French studio (in late 1931) may explain why its sound mix is less smooth than the dubbed version of the later RKO film The Lost Patrol.

    Although it is difficult to ascertain whether multi-track mixing was used right from the production stage of all three European films,33 the soundtracks of their French versions are basic to the point that perhaps not even two-track editing was used to mix them. They sound much more like the montage of the dubbed sound and dialogue with whatever could be retained from the original sound. In L’Affaire Pichler, the French version of Der brave Sünder, the original background noise or music pops in and out whenever no French voices are heard. The visually elaborate dream scene where a drunken Pichler becomes confused in a nightclub is a case in point.

    Henry VIII and Le Chant du Danube (the French version of Waltzes from Vienna) include numerous such examples as well. At the end of Le Chant du Danube, a situation like that of the Chancellor’s speech in Queen Christina occurs: introducing the first ever performance of Johann Strauss Jr’s ‘Blue Danube’, a master of ceremonies viewed from a distance is only faintly heard (p.213) in the original film, but his voice is crystal-clear in the French dubbing. As in Queen Christina, the effort on the part of the original filmmakers to match the viewpoint and point of audition was abandoned.

    There may have been production documents dealing with this aspect. If they were still accessible, they would shed more light on the mixing processes used in the dubbing of all these films. At this stage, only reports in the trade press and popular film magazines can help explain the features of soundtracks. In any case, there seems to be no correlation between the dubbing process used (visual or mechanical) and the sound-mix quality.

    Implications for film history, archiving, and exhibition

    In his memoirs, French filmmaker Claude Autant-Lara describes in great detail his contribution to early dubbing in Hollywood and adds: ‘The reason why I mention all these details about the authentic beginnings of dubbing is that, whether you like it or not, they are part of the history of cinema.’34 To construct this aspect of film history, gathering information both from non-film material and the films themselves is essential, which is why keeping such versions is so valuable.

    Preserving and properly cataloguing the actual prints is paramount. Dubbed versions raise specific archival questions. For example, duration is particularly crucial. With the exception of The Lost Squadron, all the dubbed versions of the American films, as well as the British Henry VIII, have the same duration as the original. The dubbed versions of Der brave Sünder, The Lost Squadron, and Waltzes from Vienna are shorter. Differences in duration are matched by differences in titles. Apart from A Free Soul, whose French title is a very close version of the original, only in the plural (Âmes libres, ‘Free Souls’), all the dubbed versions of equal duration to the original films have accurate translations of the original titles. The three shorter versions have new titles: the German ‘The Honest Sinner’ became in French ‘The Pichler Case’ (or ‘Bank Clerk Pichler’, another archiving issue), The Lost Squadron turned into ‘Four from the Air Force’, and Waltzes from Vienna into ‘Song of the Danube’.

    Shorter versions were released by local independent distributors who were usually responsible for editing shots or entire scenes out, and renaming the films. Reasons for this sometimes have to do with lip-synching problems which may have proved too difficult to solve at the time, leading the makers of (p.214) dubbed versions simply to cut scenes from the original. Another possible reason is that French dubbings tended to be programmed as the first part of a double bill.35 In multiple-language production, the French versions were generally shorter.36 This may have influenced dubbed versions too, especially when local distributors had control over their making. A larger sample of films would help us to understand whether these corresponding differences in duration and titles are a relevant factor in identifying and cataloguing dubbed versions.

    From a film translation perspective, unlike literary works, translated films of the early talking period, especially dubbed versions, cannot be associated with specific translators as these were usually left uncredited. Dialogue writers responsible for the French dialogue are sometimes mentioned in the recreated credits of dubbed versions, but they were not necessarily translators, and may have been working from draft translations initially done by professional translators. Still, like other personnel who sometimes appear in dubbed credits, dialogue writers can be important for cataloguing. According to the credits in the prints I viewed, the dialogue writers are Yvan Noé and Marc Didier for Quatre de l’aviation; Henri Jeanson and Jean Vincent-Bréchignac for Henry VIII; A. Duges, Claude Allain, and Jean Arbuleau for Le Chant du Danube.37 However, no such information is available in the DVD editions of the American films which include the original dubbed soundtracks, but not the ‘localised’ image track which usually credited the members of the dubbing team. I was able to confirm that these are indeed the original dubbings through trade press information and listening to the voices and sound quality.

    The lack of reliable information and viewing material has major implications for research and exhibition. For example, Éditions Montparnasse’s French DVD edition of The Lost Patrol mentions that ‘the French version is presented as it was shown at the time of its theatrical release’,38 that is in 1935. This is partly untrue as only the soundtrack comes from that dubbed version, (p.215) not the image track which belongs to the original version. Information on the makers of the French dubbing, which the dubbed version is likely to contain in its image track, is available neither on the disk nor on the packaging of this DVD edition.39

    This is a problem not just for researchers, but also for the general public. Most DVD editions of American films which include their original dubbing usually carry only the soundtrack: the image comes from the ‘undubbed’ version, so to speak, and lacks the localised credits and insert shots, commonly recreated from the very early years of dubbing. The presence of the original dubbed sound would tend to indicate that at least one print of the full original dubbed version, complete with sound and image, of each of these films is kept somewhere and could serve as a source for important metadata.

    Making the original dubbed versions accessible would also be fairer to the audience who would then know exactly what they are watching and listening to (especially as redubbing older films is becoming common, though rarely mentioned as such in DVD editions). Today’s commercial treatment of dubbed versions of early talking films definitely raises concerns about the provenance, identity, and reception of such films.40

    Dubbing, a significant aspect of early talking film history

    For a long time, the multiple-language versions of the early sound period were considered a short-lived, disastrous experience, better to be ignored by film history. In the late 1990s dedicated film historians had a closer look and saw what the study of these films could teach us about early sound techniques and their visual impact. Dubbing deserves similar in-depth studies.

    In my study of nine films which appear to be telling examples of early dubbing practices into French, the examination of voice-acting, lip-synchronisation, alterations in the dialogue and related sounds, and sound mixing outlines how the treatment of post-synchronised sound was approached in French dubbing from 1932 to 1935. The dialogue and performances in these versions are quite convincing according to the standards of the time. There is an overall coherence, in spite of occasional uneven voice performance and sound re-creation specific to the French versions. Sometimes, a scene may be perceived differently from the original version due to recreated sounds.

    (p.216) The dubbed soundtracks of the American films, except The Lost Squadron, seem richer than those of the European films. With the MGM films, Grand Hotel and, to a lesser extent, Mata Hari, the impression is that the dubbed versions are extremely close re-creations of the original soundtracks. This may have to do with the fact that these two films were dubbed in MGM’s Culver City studios in early and mid-1932, prior to the French government decree of the same year which imposed the making of French-dubbed versions in France.41

    If one takes into consideration the chronology of the making of the dubbed versions, one might expect some sort of progress from L’Affaire Pichler to Le Chant du Danube, from 1932 to 1935. However, as with the history of other film technologies, such as sound or colour, it is impossible, and counter-productive, to have a view of the evolution of sound treatment in dubbed versions which would imply improvement with time. Location, equipment, acting traditions, and marketing strategies are among the many factors which influenced the way sound and speech were recorded and mixed in early dubbed versions, not just in France but wherever dubbing was commercially crucial.

    Further study is much needed on a larger body of films, and other aspects must be examined. One is the intriguing issue of avoiding shots with visible lip movements right from the production stage. None of the American films in this study demonstrates such a practice. This may seem to contradict evidence from non-film documents, as trade paper reports indicate this was envisaged both in the USA and Germany.42 For example, Der brave Sünder includes shots and scenes where characters deliberately turn their backs to the camera or have their mouths partly hidden. Yet it is difficult to assert that this was done with dubbing in mind. Two mechanical dubbing methods were being developed in Berlin in 1931, at the time of the shooting of this film43 and German producers definitely had an eye on foreign markets. But a number of German films made between 1930 and 1932 show a taste for experiments with sound and its relation with the image, such as Robert Siodmak’s Abschied (1930) and Fritz Lang’s The Testament of Dr. Mabuse (Das Testament des Dr. Mabuse, 1933), shot in late 1932, early 1933. Looking at more films, if (p.217) available, would make it possible to verify the scale on which avoiding ‘visible mouth’ shots was implemented and for which films (star vehicles or B-movies). It may prove that avoiding shots with potential lip-synch problems was mostly done at the editing stage. This would also explain the shorter duration of some dubbed versions.

    Sound and speech are not the only components which needed to be adapted in dubbed versions. Insert shots of signs, newspaper headlines, and handwritten letters were commonly translated and reshot for foreign versions. These are visual, yet also verbal elements, involving translation and aesthetic re-creation. Although they do not belong to the soundtrack, they have a close relationship with it, because they involve language. In some of the versions studied here, the original sound disappears when inserts in French are included, as in L’Affaire Pichler and Quatre de l’aviation: because they introduce a break in the optical soundtrack, this would mean that they do not carry a soundtrack themselves and, therefore, that the equivalent sound fragment in the original could or would not be reused. More research on recreated written inserts would shed more light on how dubbed versions were seen as brand new sound and visual re-creations, with potential implications in the blurring of the national and linguistic origins of the films.44

    The fragmented post-synchronisation process involved in dubbing ran counter to the multiple-microphone recording practice then common in the shooting of French films. A comparative study of sound practices in French-dubbed foreign films and contemporary French productions may prove enlightening, along the lines of Charles O’Brien’s analysis in his Cinema’s Conversion to Sound. Examining the sound mixing in dubbed versions also leads us to inquire into whether the sound in original versions is the result of direct-sound recording, post-synchronisation, or a blend of both — a crucial aspect in the evolution of sound recording and reproduction in the transition years. This is also an example of how studying a dubbed version raises possibly unexpected questions about the source material it is adapted from.

    Research into early dubbing practices in every national film industry where dubbing was adopted must be done worldwide. Recent innovative studies have greatly enriched our knowledge of the development of dubbing (p.218) in Germany and Italy.45 New and multidisciplinary approaches are needed to study dubbing as a film translation mode, as a commercial and economic strategy, and as a cultural phenomenon. In the process, we will deepen our understanding of film history and the historiography of cinema.

    Note. I would like to thank Laurent Bismuth, Daniel Brémaud, and Dominique Moustacchi, at Direction du patrimoine du CNC (formerly known as Archives françaises du film du CNC), Bois d’Arcy, France, for their invaluable advice, expertise, and assistance.

    Table 11.1. Films and their French-dubbed versions, in chronological order of original production. (A question mark indicates an estimation.)

    Original title (with English translation when necessary) and director’s name

    Production company and country

    French title (with English back-translation when different from original title)

    Dates of original production (p) and release (r), location and dates of making of French dubbing (d), dubbing process (m = ‘mechanical’; v = ‘visual’), distributor and release date of dubbed version (Fr)

    Viewing sources

    A Free Soul (Clarence Brown)

    MGM (USA)

    Âmes libres (Free Souls)

    March–April 1931 (p), June 1931 (r)

    Viewing sources DVD: Turner Entertainment Co./Warner Bros.

    MGM Culver City studio, spring 1932 (d, v), MGM, spring 1933 (Fr)

    Entertainment, 2013 (original film and original dubbed version)

    Der brave Sünder (The Honest Sinner) (Fritz Kortner)

    Allianz-Tonfilm GmbH (Germany)

    L’Affaire Pichler or Pichler banquier (The Pichler Case, or Bank Clerk Pichler)

    August 1931 (p), October 1931 (r)

    35mm original French-dubbed version (CNC)

    Dubbed and released by Synchro-Ciné, Paris, summer 1932 (d, m), late 1932, early 1933 (Fr)

    DVD: Filmverlag Fernsehjuwelen, 2014 (original version)

    Mata Hari (George Fitzmaurice)

    MGM (USA)

    Mata Hari

    October/ mid-November 1931 (p), late December 1931 (r)

    DVD: Turner Entertainment Co./Warner Bros. Entertainment, 2005

    MGM Culver City studios, Los Angeles, 1932 (d, v), MGM, January 1933 (Fr)

    (original film and original dubbed version)

    (p.219) The Lost Squadron (George Archainbaud)

    RKO (USA)

    Quatre de l’aviation (Four from the Air Force)

    Late 1931 (p), March 1932 (r)

    35mm original French-dubbed version (CNC)

    Ateliers Techniques de Production, Paris, late 1932 (d, v), Établissements Jacques Haïk, January 1933 (Fr)

    Grand Hotel (Edmund Goulding)

    MGM (USA)

    Grand Hôtel

    Mid-December 1931– mid-February 1932 (p), September 1932 (r; New York première April 1932)

    DVD: Turner Entertainment Co./ Warner Bros. Entertainment 2004 (original film and original dubbed version)

    MGM Culver City studios, Los Angeles, spring–summer 1932 (d, v), MGM, March 1933 (Fr)

    The Private Life of Henry VIII (Alexander Korda)

    London Film (UK)

    La Vie privée d’Henry VIII

    Mid-May–early July 1933 (p), October 1933 (r)

    35mm original French-dubbed version (CNC) DVD: Elephant Films, 2013 (original film and original dubbed version)

    Igor Gorochov, Studios de Billancourt, Paris, 1933–4 (d, both v and m?), Artistes Associés (United Artists), early 1934 (Fr)

    Queen Christina (Rouben Mamoulian)

    MGM (USA)

    La Reine Christine

    August–October 1933 (p),February 1934 (r)

    DVD: Turner Entertainment Co./Warner Bros.

    MGM Paris dubbing studios, 1934? (d, v, Fr)

    Entertainment, 2005 (original film and original dubbed version)

    The Lost Patrol (John Ford)

    RKO (USA)

    La Patrouille perdue

    September 1933 (p), February 1934 (r)

    DVD: Éditions Montparnasse, 2003 (original film and original dubbed version)

    Dubbed (and released?) by Films sonores Tobis, Épinay (Paris), 1935? (d, m?, Fr)

    Waltzes from Vienna (Alfred Hitchcock)

    Gaumont-British (UK)

    Le Chant du Danube (Song of the Danube)

    1933 (p), February 1934 (trade show)

    DVD: Universal Pictures Video (France), 2006 (original film and original sound of dubbed version)

    Studios ESEC, Courbevoie (Paris), late 1935? (d, v or m?), Établissements Jacques Haïk, 1936 (Fr)

    (p.220) Sources:

    Original production and release dates: for all the American films, AFI Catalog of Feature Films; Der brave Sünder: filmportal.de, and Oliver Bayan, ‘Das Booklet zum Film’, in Filmverlag Fernsehjuwelen 2014 DVD edition of the film; Henry VIII: Charles Drazin, Alexander Korda, Britain’s Movie Mogul (London, I. B. Tauris, 2011), pp. 100, 103; Waltzes from Vienna: Hitchcock/ Truffaut (Paris, Gallimard, 1993), p. 301, and Charles Barr, English Hitchcock (Moffat, Cameron & Hollis, 1999), p. 232.

    French dubbing and releases: A Free Soul: ‘MGM vient de réaliser 31 versions doublées à Hollywood’, La Cinématographie française, 709 (4 June 1932), 14; ‘Âmes libres’, La Cinématographie française, 764 (24 June 1933), 180, and ‘Du 26 mai au 1er juin voici les films qui passent à Paris’, Pour Vous, 236 (25 May 1933), 15; Der brave Sünder (as Pichler banquier): ‘Montage et sonorisation’, La Cinématographie française, 713 (2 July 1932), 23, and ‘Les nouveaux films’, La Cinématographie française, 740 (7 January 1933), 22; Mata Hari: ‘À Paris cette semaine’, La Cinématographie française, 742 (21 January 1933), 26; The Lost Squadron: ‘Studios’, La Cinématographie française, 742 (21 January 1933), 12, and ‘Quatre de l’aviation’, La Cinématographie française, 743 (28 January 1933), 37; Grand Hotel: ‘Métro double “Grand Hôtel” en français et en allemand’, La Cinématographie française, 707 (21 May 1932), 8, ‘M-G Rushes Versions to Beat French Quota’, Variety (2 August 1932), 44, ‘Metro’s Foreign Production Goes Abroad; Out Here’, Variety (27 September 1932), 15, and ‘Grand Hôtel’, La Cinématographie française, 749 (11 March 1933), 21; Henry VIII: ‘La Vie privée d’Henri VIII’, La Cinématographie française, 797 (10 February 1934), 29; Queen Christina, The Lost Patrol, and Waltzes from Vienna: the release dates mentioned on the Internet Movie Database (IMDb) are likely to be those of the original subtitled versions; dubbing dates for these films are tentative.

    All the films preserved at Direction du patrimoine du CNC are nitrate 35mm prints, viewed on a flatbed editing table in November 2014.


    (1) Scathing comments from French filmmakers can be found in Jean Renoir, ‘Contre le doublage’ (January 1939), in Écrits 1926–1971 (Paris, Pierre Belfond, 1974), p. 47, and Jacques Becker, ‘Film doublé = film trahi’, L’Écran français, 2 (11 July 1945), 3.

    (2) On the commercial context of early dubbing, see Jean-François Cornu, Le Doublage et le sous-titrage : histoire et esthétique (Rennes, Presses universitaires de Rennes, 2014), chs 2 and 3, pp. 33–88.

    (3) On early subtitling experiments and the 1932 legislation, see Cornu, Le Doublage et le sous-titrage, pp. 232–3 and 58–9.

    (4) On the variety of methods used in French dubbing, see Cornu, Le Doublage et le sous-titrage, chs 4 and 5, pp. 91–176.

    (5) See the example of Paramount in George Lewin, ‘Dubbing and Its Relation to Sound Picture Production’, Journal of the Society of Motion Picture Engineers, 16 (January 1931), 38–48.

    (6) On this periodisation, see Martin Barnier, En route pour le parlant : histoire d’une évolution technologique, économique et esthétique du cinéma 1926–1934 (Liège, Céfal, 2002), and Cornu, Le Doublage et le sous-titrage, chs 4 and 5, pp. 91–176.

    (7) The chronology of the French releases does not necessarily match that of production. For example, A Free Soul was produced and released in the USA in late spring 1931, but released as a French-dubbed version two years later, in late May 1933. For details on both chronologies, see Table 11.1.

    (8) See ‘Paris Reports M-G Seeking Paris Studio, but N. Y. Office Says “No”’, Variety (23 January 1932), 17.

    (9) See Didy Gluntz, ‘Ceux qui prêtent leur voix aux étoiles’, Pour Vous, 356 (12 September 1935), 6.

    (10) For the second title, see, for example, the Synchro-Ciné advertisement in La Cinématographie française, 713 (2 July 1932), 10, and the ‘Montage et sonorisation’ section in the same issue, 23.

    (11) See, for example, Edwin Hopkins’s ‘on-set’ dubbing, Friedrich Zelnik’s early foreign-language post-synchronisation method, and the ‘mechanical’ systems described in Cornu, Le Doublage et le sous-titrage, pp. 94–5, 97–9, 112–22.

    (12) Such practices often involved rehearsing of short sections of dialogue by the dubbing actors prior to recording. Claude Autant-Lara was a pioneer of this method at MGM in Hollywood. See Cornu, Le Doublage et le sous-titrage, pp. 104–8, 156–61.

    (13) ‘La Vie privée d’Henri VIII’, La Cinématographie française, 797 (10 February 1934), 29 (‘On a presque constamment l’impression … de voir et d’entendre un film original et non un film doublé. … Le doublage excellent de Dorival.’) Unless stated otherwise, all translations from the French are mine.

    (14) Pierre Autré, ‘La Version doublée de “La Vie d’Henri VIII”’, La Cinématographie française, 798 (17 February 1934), 29 (‘Il faut féliciter spécialement M. Dorival de la Comédie-Française qui a assumé la tâche délicate et pleine de difficultés de doubler Charles Laughton.’).

    (15) This dubbing actor’s name is spelled with an ‘S’ in the opening credits of L’Affaire Pichler, but more often with a ‘Z’ in trade paper reviews and articles. In 1932, a few months before lending his voice in this version, Rosenberg had played in Coup de feu à l’aube, the French-language version of a German film produced by Ufa in Berlin; see Chris Wahl, Multiple Language Versions Made in Babelsberg: Ufa’s International Strategy, 1929–1939, trans. from the German by Steve Wilder (Amsterdam, Amsterdam University Press, 2016), p. 405.

    (16) See W. A. Pozner, ‘Synchronization Technique’, Journal of the Society of Motion Picture Engineers, 47.3 (September 1946), quoted in Nataša Ďurovičová, ‘Local Ghosts: Dubbing Bodies in Early Sound Cinema’, in Anna Antonini, Il film e i suoi multipli / Film and Its Multiples, IX Convegno Internazionale di Studi sul Cinema (Forum, Udine, 2003), pp. 92 and 97, n. 28; and Michael Wedel, ‘Vom Synchronismus zur Synchronisation: Carl Robert Blum und der frühe Tonfilm’, in Joachin Polzer (ed.), Aufstieg und Untergang des Tonfilms (Potsdam, Polzer Media Group GmbH, 2002), pp. 97–112.

    (17) See Cornu, Le Doublage et le sous-titrage, pp. 108–20. In Table 11.1, the letter ‘m’ indicates versions which were dubbed with a mechanical system.

    (19) See, for example, A. P. Richard, ‘Le Dubbing est-il à craindre ?’, La Cinématographie française, 660 (17 June 1931), 229.

    (20) See, for example, ‘Scientific Dubbing’, The Bioscope, 84 (1930), quoted in Charles O’Brien, ‘The “Cinematization” of Sound Cinema in Britain and the Dubbing into French of Hitchcock’s Waltzes from Vienna (1934)’, in Lucy Mazdon and Catherine Wheatley (eds), Je t’aime… moi non plus: Franco-British Cinematic Relations (Oxford, New York, Berghahn Books, 2010), pp. 37–49 at 46. See also O’Brien’s chapter in this volume.

    (21) See the entry for this film in the American Film Institute (AFI) Catalog of Feature Films online, at http://www.afi.com/members/catalog/DetailView.aspx?s=&Movie=7362, last accessed 6 April 2017.

    (22) For the production dates of the films mentioned in this paragraph, see the relevant entries in the AFI Catalog of Feature Films at www.afi.com/members/catalog/, last accessed 6 April 2017.

    (23) On this subject, see O’Brien’s chapter in this volume.

    (24) The dubbed version quotes the original text from Montaigne’s Essays, book 1, chapter 28, ‘De l’amitié’: ‘Les amitiés communes on les peut départir, mais cette amitié qui possède l’âme et la régente en toute souveraineté, il est impossible qu’elle soit double.’ The English translation quoted here is by C. Cotton (1877); see the Complete Essays of Michel de Montaigne, available on the Project Gutenberg website, http://www.gutenberg.org/files/3600/3600-h/3600-h.htm#link2HCH0027, last accessed 6 April 2017.

    (25) On the sound-recording philosophy in early French talking films, see Charles O’Brien, Cinema’s Conversion to Sound: Technology and Film Style in France and the United States (Bloomington and Indianapolis, Indiana University Press, 2005), pp. 124–5.

    (27) I thank Carol O’Sullivan for drawing my attention to this aspect.

    (28) George Lewin, ‘Dubbing in Its Relation to Sound Picture Production’, Journal of the Society of Motion Picture Engineers, 16 (January 1931), 44.

    (29) CTM advertisement in La Cinématographie française, 771 (12 August 1933), 22.

    (31) On the concept of the ‘point of audition’ (point d’écoute), see Michel Chion, L’Audio-vision (Paris, Nathan, 1990), pp. 79–82, published in English as Audio-Vision: Sound on Screen, trans. Claudia Gorbman (New York, Columbia University Press, 1994), pp. 89–94.

    (32) The DVD edition I consulted for this film indicates that the included dubbed version is the one which was first released in the mid-1930s (see Table 11.1 for reference).

    (33) According to O’Brien, multi-track technology was pre-planned for Waltzes from Vienna; see ‘The “Cinematization” of Sound Cinema in Britain and the Dubbing into French of Hitchcock’s Waltzes from Vienna (1934)’, 39.

    (34) Claude Autant-Lara, Hollywood Cake-walk (1930–1932) (Paris, Veyrier, 1985), p. 357 (‘Si je raconte ces détails sur ce que furent les authentiques débuts du doublage, c’est — qu’on le veuille ou non — que cela fait partie de l’Histoire du cinéma.’).

    (36) On multiple-language versions, Chris Wahl mentions the shortened French version of E. A. Dupont’s Atlantic (1929), and the varying lengths of the original and foreign versions of Dracula (Tod Browning, 1931) and S.O.S. Iceberg (Arnold Fanck and Tay Garnett, 1933); see Wahl, Multiple Language Versions Made in Babelsberg, pp. 56 and 60. Interestingly, Atlantis (Jean Kemm, 1930), the French version of Atlantic, was coproduced and distributed by Jacques Haïk who would later release the shortened Waltzes from Vienna.

    (37) As a dubbing actor, Claude Allain had lent his voice to John Barrymore in MGM films in 1932. See Cornu, Le Doublage et le sous-titrage, p. 106. ‘A. Duges’, as the name appears in the dubbing credits, is likely to be the filmmaker André Dugès.

    (38) ‘La version française de ce film vous est présentée telle qu’elle a été exploitée à l’époque de sa distribution en salle’; see French DVD edition of La Patrouille perdue (Éditions Montparnasse, 2003).

    (39) The same goes for the French DVD editions of the MGM films used in this study.

    (40) On these issues, see Paolo Cherchi Usai, ‘Same Film, Different Prints: The Case of Early Cinema and Its Multiple Archival Versions’, in Esteve Riambau (ed.), Multiversions (Barcelona, Filmoteca de Catalunya, 2013), p. 104 (English version).

    (41) The full text of the French government decree of 21 July 1932 on the distribution of foreign films is reproduced in La Cinématographie française, 717 (30 July 1932), 9. For a commentary on this decree, see Cornu, Le Doublage et le sous-titrage, pp. 55–8.

    (43) See Wedel, ‘Vom Synchronismus zur Synchronisation: Carl Robert Blum und der frühe Tonfilm’; Kurt London, Film Music: A Summary of the Characteristic Features of Its History, Aesthetics, Technique, and Possible Developments, trans. from the German by Eric S. Bensinger (London, Faber & Faber, 1936), pp. 66–70, 115–17; Cornu, Le Doublage et le sous-titrage, pp. 116–21.

    (44) For rare in-depth studies on inserts, also called ‘in-vision texts’, see Carol O’Sullivan, ‘The Translating Dissolve’, in Translating Popular Cinema (Basingstoke, Palgrave Macmillan, 2011), pp. 45–50, and ‘Images Translating Images: “Dubbing” Text on Screen’, L’Écran traduit, 2 (Autumn 2013), http://ataa.fr/revue/archives/2387 (also available in French as ‘Quand l’image traduit l’image: “Doubler” le texte à l’écran’ on the same website at http://ataa.fr/revue/archives/2038); see also Michel Chion, L’Écrit au cinéma (Paris, Armand Colin, 2013), pp. 149– 52, published in English as Words on Screen, trans. Claudia Gorbman (New York, Columbia University Press, 2017).

    (45) See Gerd Naumann, Filmsynchronisation in Deutschland bis 1955 (Frankfurt am Main, Peter Lang, 2016), and Carla Mereu Keating, The Politics of Dubbing: Film Censorship and State Intervention in the Translation of Foreign Cinema in Fascist Italy (Bern, Peter Lang, 2016).